What is Church-on-the-Lap?
Church-on-the-Lap is about sparkling, experience-oriented services for children in the age of 0 to 4 years. A form of worship in which babies, toddles, and their (grand)parents experience a Bible story with all their senses. The story is told, interspersed with songs (sung to the tunes of well-known toddlers’ songs) and sensory, experience-oriented activities. In this way, the children and parents get to know the church in a playful manner and meet each other in an informal way.
This page explains why Church-on-the-Lap was developed, what our core values are and how you could start your own Church-on-the-Lap program.
The aim of Church-on-the-Lap is two-fold. First, we intend to get children acquainted with the church (in particular with the local parish), with other young children in that church and – at a basic level – with Bible stories. A second aim is to enable the parents of these children to meet each other. Both the children and their parents should notice that church is fun.
We intentionally developed Church-on-the-lap services for children of 0–4 years of age. During regular Sunday morning services little more is usually available for this group than crèche. That may be a good way to take care of the children (better than not providing anything at all), but usually the crèche room is void of the elements and atmosphere that are typical for the church and for “real” services. Church-on-the-Lap is intended to fill this gap and give these children a full place within the congregational community. We provide Church-on-the-Lap services six times a year.
Church-on-the-Lap in its present form was developed in the Protestantse Gemeente Oisterwijk c.a. (the Protestant Parish of Oisterwijk and surrounding villages (NL)) by the child psychologist Eveline Nieuwenhuijse and Rev. Hester Radstake, a minister in the Protestant Church in the Netherlands.
When Hester arrived in Oisterwijk, there were about five children in the age group of 0 – 4 years. We wanted to do more with them than just providing crèche. There had been an activity called Church-on-the-Lap before, but the present format was developed from scratch, based on Eveline and Hester’s experience in working with young children.
After the first Church-on-the-Lap service with four kids, everybody was very enthusiastic about the concept. The numbers grew rapidly (on average 12 to 15 per gathering at the moment) and we got so many positive reactions to the concept, that we really wanted to keep working on this. A (Dutch) website was launched in the hope that our work can inspire and invigorate others for this type of activity.
JOP, the youth organisation of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands regards Church-on-the-Lap as a promising concept and would like to make it known to a wider audience. Therefore, JOP supports the Church-on-the-Lap team to achieve this.
At present, Church-on-the-Lap programmes are used throughout the Netherlands by congregations of different dominations, by schools and even in the care sector.
A Bible story forms the heart of every Church-on-the-Lap service. We want children to connect with the Bible in a playful way. The Bible story is partitioned in six scenes: Every scene contains a few lines of text, an appropriate, matching song (to the tune of a well-known nursery rhyme or toddlers’ song) and an experience-focussed element. In those elements we try to address the different senses. Though the aim is not that children really know the story afterwards, we do observe that they start to recognise elements from the story. For example, some children keep singing the songs once they are back home again, some associate the church with Reverend Bear (see below). Other example are that we heard about how they used the Jonah-hand puppet they received to re-enact Jonah’s story or simply kept talking about what they had done in church.
Church-on-the-Lap services should preferably be held in the church itself. In that way, children get familiar with the church building, which forms the heart of the congregation’s worship. Before and after each service they can ask questions about what they see and have a closer look at the liturgical centre or the organ. We usually sit in a semi-circle around the eucharistic table and put the Paschal candle on a candlestick right next to the table.
At a very basic level we let children experience the concept of liturgy, in a way akin to a “regular” service. We light the Paschal candle, start and end with a brief prayer, listen to a story and sing together. Every child gets a printed service sheet. The sheet contains all songs, so the parents can sing along and ultimately take it home. The sheet includes a number of pictures supporting the elements of the story. We deliberately select the tunes of well-known (secular) child songs and not traditional sacred child songs so all parents can sing along and not only those with the right denomination background.
Everybody is welcomed to these low-threshold services, children of the right age (0–4), their (grand-)parents, siblings, regardless of whether they are members and/or otherwise involved with the local parish.
The welcoming atmosphere is clear from the engagement the children have with “Rev. Bear”, a teddy bear wearing a minister’s gown. The children are introduced to Rev. Bear during a welcome song (“Hello, hello, hello, welcome to Church-on-the-Lap! Hello, hello, hello, who are you?”). Every child receives personal attention of the liturgist and of Rev. Bear, by asking the child for its name and mentioning it by its name (“Welcome, Thomas!”). We chose a teddy bear, because young children are accustomed to teddy bears and may therefore engage more readily with this character. He wears a gown, just like a minister does during service. The song is easy to sing along. Repeating it for every child at the start of every service contributes to the recognisability of the services.
After every service, parents and children are encouraged to stay and meet for drinks and refreshments.
Perception with all senses
The services are directed to stimulating multi-sensory perception. Each of the different scenes of a service includes an experience-focussed element. We try to address as many different senses as possible: hearing, seeing, feeling, moving. We aim to provide elements that allow both babies and toddlers to experience at their own level.
The services are naturally very child-oriented, because the experience-element is carried out individually with every child. Every child is different, so it is important to us that every child is allowed to react to what is offered in its own way. Some will respond excitedly, others will prefer silent observation from within the safety of their parent’s lap. In case a child is very shy, it sometimes helps to avoid exposing the child to too much direct attention, by addressing the parent with the experience-element instead.
After the service
We provide printed service sheets containing all the songs and many images, for the children to take home. We also try to hand out something tangible during or after each service, something related to the theme of that day’s service. In that way, it is easier for children to relate back to the service and articulate their experiences once they are back home.
Do it yourself (instructions)
Before starting off with Church-on-the-Lap, we recommend you to think about your answers to the below questions. This will help you in establishing whether Church-on-the-Lap is the right format for your circumstances.
- Why would you like to start with Church-on-the-Lap? What is your aim?
Church-on-the-Lap is intended for children in the age of 0-4 years, that would not normally come to church or if they were to come would only see the crèche room. It is meant as a low-threshold activity to introduce these children to the church and the community. Church-on-the-Lap allows young children and young parents to meet each other. The format is intended to be inclusive, allowing people both from within the congregational community and from outside to feel engaged and welcomed.
- Who will lead the service?
We would recommend that the local minister has a role in the Church-on-the-Lap services. In this way, the children can get to know their pastor and vice versa. If the minister is not willing or able to lead the entire service, he or she could still have a smaller role, e.g. only the prayers. It is important that the services are led by people who are well able to deal with children of the target age and who have a sense for how to suitably address and engage them.
- How many participating children do you expect?
The programs were designed for groups of at most 20 children. Church-on-the-Lap works best with relatively small groups of children. In such groups, most justice will be done to the core values. Should you expect (many) more children, you would be better off by adapting the program. One could, for instance, decide not to engage every child in every experience element. A better alternative would be to have your “experience materials” available in duplicate (or more), to be ready to present the experience elements to several children simultaneously. Take care to give sufficient individual attention to every child. At this age, children are not very group-oriented yet, so the activities should best be presented close by to them.
- What room to use for the service? How best to organise the room?
The best place for Church-on-the-Lap is the same place as that where the regular services are held. In that way, the normal liturgical attributes (altar, eucharistic table, paschal candle) can be used or at least be part of the “scenery”. This will playfully stimulate the children to feel at home in church. Discuss Church-on-the-Lap with your parish council or consistory. It is highly recommended that children are allowed to freely ask questions before and after the service, have a look at the attributes in the church and possibly even to run up and down the aisles, so they experience that they are free to be themselves in church.
- Does your program address various different senses?
Think about your experience elements. Is there something to feel? Something to watch? Something to hear? Something to do or something to let the children move around? The Church-on-the-Lap programs that we offer address all senses. Therefore, please keep this question in mind especially when you are developing your own programs or modify existing ones.
We developed a number of programs and tested them with children. These programs include the themes of Christmas, Palm Sunday, Noah’s Ark, Jonah, the Wedding at Cana, the Creation, Five Loaves and Two Fish. We try to add new programs every now and then. In our experience, it is no problem for the target audience of Church-on-the-Lap if programs are re-used. In fact, children of this young age actually like the sense of recognition and familiarity. You can find our programs (in Dutch) on www.kerkopschoot.nl/programmas. For every program, we provide a sample service sheet, an annotated full-text version for the liturgists and guidance about the experience elements and the props you can use. Moreover, we also provide general instructions like the ones above and a detailed step-by-step roadmap for local implementation of Church-on-the-Lap.
At present we do not have any English or other international programs available. Likewise the supporting material is also available in Dutch only, at least for the moment. If there is sufficient interest, we are happy to see how we can assist in the creation of international editions, though an active role of (poetically gifted) native speakers would be required. We could also provide (English) translations of the supporting material.